Napa County and Bremer Family Winery settled a lawsuit brought by the county against the winery over alleged permit and code violations, ending a dispute that called into question how the county interprets older use permits.
The county and Bremers signed a settlement on Feb. 6, with Napa County Superior Court entering judgment on Feb. 8. That cancels a scheduled March trial involving the Deer Park-area winery.
The Bremers will receive lower visitation limits than they had initially sought from the county and no marketing events or food service, with no revisions possible before December. They will correct alleged building code violations. They will pay the county $271,464 for legal costs and give the county a $320,658 promissory note to be canceled if they comply with the judgment.
In the judgment, the Bremers contended they operated the winery “with a good faith belief that their use was consistent with and within the scope of their use permit.” Any potential violations were unintentional.
One issue in the court case was whether the Bremers had a “golden older” use permit – and, by implication, what that might mean for other county wineries in similar situations.
The winery was established in 1979 by David Clark at 975 Deer Park Road, reactivating an 1891 winery. Clark’s application said the reborn winery would produce up the 14,400 gallons annually and anticipated having one visitor daily and up to six visitors a week.
Those visitor restrictions aren’t mentioned in the conditions of approval passed in 1979 by the Planning Commission, only in the application. The Bremers contended that, as a result, they don’t apply.
Napa County in legal filings said that the 1979 use permit allows only those uses described in the application materials, as further restricted by the conditions of approval. The county called the Bremers’ interpretation “a novel argument.”
John and Laura Bremer considered buying the winery in 2002. Laura Bremer in a deposition said a county planning official at the time told her the winery had “a golden, older permit” issued before more restrictive county rules took hold and had no limits on by-appointment-only visitation and events.
They relied on this statement made by the county’s agent when deciding to buy the winery, Laura Bremer said in the deposition.
Court filings by the county indicate that Judge Victoria Wood last summer issued a non-public tentative ruling that seemed to agree with the Bremers’ interpretation of their permit. That raised the stakes of the Bremer trial for the county, given that other older wineries might have similar permits.
“If the tentative ruling becomes final, it would potentially have significant and widespread impact on the county and its regulation of the wine industry and zoning in general,” a county court filing said.
The judgment would seem to put the issue to rest, with no court ruling on how to interpret permits such as the Bremers’.
County Counsel Jeffrey Brax said Tuesday that interpretation of the Bremers’ permit was not part of the settlement. “We had our belief, they had theirs and we settled,” he said.
In the judgment, the county said Bremer Family Winery had about 650 visitors a month or 7,800 a year. The settlement limits the winery to 3,600 visitors a year and no more than 70 a day, with the Planning Commission unable to hear any modification requests before Dec. 1.
The Bremers before the lawsuit had tried to end their disagreements with the county by filing a use permit modification application. That application asked for a maximum of 300 guests a day.
The judgement said the Bremers can’t use a cave for tasting events. They can’t use a bocce ball court or pizza oven for winery purposes. They must legalize or demolish fermentation tanks and catwalks on the east side of the winery building.
In addition, the judgment addressed an alleged county conservation regulation violation. Within 60 days of the judgment, the Bremers must submit an application to allow walls and a bridge within a creek setback.
“County staff shall reasonably recommend approval of the exception if it is consistent Napa County code and will not result in any significant, adverse environmental impact,” the judgment said.
Also, the judgment referred to a 2016 order by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. Agency inspectors concluded an unnamed stream channel on the Bremer property feeding Canon Creek had been ditched and culverted, with rock walls now forming the banks.
The judgment said the Bremers must work in good faith to obtain a final corrective action work plan from the Water Board by April, so that corrective work can be done this spring and summer.
Bremer Family Winery is located just outside of the Howell Mountain wine appellation. John Bremer is listed by the Wall Street Journal as being a senior executive with U.S. Mine Corp., a director at Purebase Corp. and CEO of GroWest, Inc.
The Bremers couldn’t be reached for a comment on the judgment.